I recently finished reading Peter Frankopan’s excellent book The Silk Roads and noticed afterwards I was feeling some sense of overwhelm. I’ve been able to pinpoint three reasons for this. On one level, the most visceral, I was left with an acute sense of the magnitude and complexity of the world’s problems in the twenty first century and of the contextualisation of this feeling in terms of ‘it was ever thus’..
Research and writing which goes a long way
On another level, I felt a little in awe of the scope of Frankopan’s project in writing such a detailed yet engaging book that is subtitled, ‘A New History of the World’, and which spans several centuries. He notes himself that the idea for this book seemed dubious at the point of its genesis and that doubts reappeared throughout its gestation. However, the finished book, a bestseller, is testament to Frankopan’s excellent research and writing skills and, I imagine, to his lifelong sense of inquiry and open-mindedness.
Anniversaries with no cause for celebration
Finally, I read the second half of the book, which deals with the last two centuries, having just been to Palestine and Israel for a fourth visit in two years. 2017 marks one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration which saw the British carve up Palestine to the very real, painful and enduring detriment of the Arabic population living there. It is also fifty years since the Six Day War which resulted in Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and which, so many years later, sees no sign of abating; far from it. The principal tenet of Frankopan’s book is how the world is changing, with the pendulum of power and influence swinging back to the east from the west.
From this viewpoint, it would seem that countries from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas which lie along the fault line of this change are particularly vulnerable as things are thrown in to flux. It is an understatement to note that Palestine is not well poised economically, militarily or in terms of natural resources to take advantage of this seismic shift.
Lessons from the past for today and tomorrow
As well as Frankopan’s tome which, including notes, is nearly 650 pages long, I have been carrying around with me a very slender book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder. I read this before leaving the UK on a recent trip but was so struck by the clear, direct and practical message it communicates that I wanted to revisit it and so took it away with me. Despite the idea inherent to both the title and its format – that tyranny is out there and isn’t going away – I’ve found it be such a practical handbook, presumably in the way the author intended. Today, it’s lying beside me as I write and is acting as an antidote to some of the heaviness I felt I absorbed from my reading of The Silk Roads. For me, Snyder’s book serves a similar purpose to that of much of Rebecca Solnit’s writing, which I’ve referred to a couple of times before. Endorsement, compassion and practicality are expressed in equal measure, along the lines of, ‘yes, it’s tough out there and plenty of bad stuff is going down but you’re not alone, we’re in this together, and this is what we can do about it’.
All of Synder’s Twenty Lessons resonate for me but, without going in to detail – not least since the book does this so well – here are a handful that jump out:
Lesson 4: ‘Take responsibility for the face of the world’: challenge rather than look away.
Lesson 8: ‘Stand out’: set an example.
Lesson 10: ‘Believe in truth’: carry on making an effort to recognise the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.
Lesson 15: ‘Contribute to good causes’: choose to support civil society by endorsing organisations which are helping others.
Lesson 20: ‘Be as courageous as you can’: move towards rather than away from the edge of your comfort zone in order to stand up for what is right.
Rich resources are at hand
I heard about Synder’s book from one of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcasts. These long form discussions between Harris and other thinkers, writers and experts from a wide variety of fields are available online for free, a point of principle that Sam Harris is very clear about.
The rigorous research, debate, exploration and questioning modelled by people like Snyder, Frankopan, Harris and Solnit provide a much needed light to navigate by in these changing times. I take some comfort from this and notice I feel a sense of hope.